If You Open the Door to Let the Burglar in, You Cannot Blame your Apartment Complex When He Shoots You

There are many good cases to be made where a tenant gets shot in their apartment due to the negligence of the apartment complex. The following appellate case illustrates the way the law views these claims well. People have to also take responsibility for their own security and when you open the door to trouble, don’t blame someone else.  For instance, in a recent decision, George v. Hercules Real Estate Servs., the Georgia Court of Appeals was tasked with determining whether liability existed for an attempted home invasion at an Atlanta apartment complex.

The plaintiff, in this case, was a resident at the aforementioned apartment complex prior to the attempted home invasion, which occurred on July 27, 2011. The plaintiff had resided at the complex since November 2010, and a little more than a month before the attempted home invasion, his apartment had, on June 11, 2011, been burglarized. Following the burglary, the management company that oversees the apartment complex made repairs to the plaintiff’s front door and installed a metal burglar guard, which improved the door’s security when locked but made the door more difficult to deadbolt. In addition, all of the apartments in the complex, including the plaintiff’s, had alarm systems, which included a 24-hour panic button. According to the plaintiff, he obtained a shotgun following the burglary, for he believed the complex was not safe.

In the early morning hours of July 27, 2011, the plaintiff, who was entertaining a friend, heard a knock at his door. The plaintiff turned on the porch light and looked through the peephole. He saw the silhouette of a single individual but heard no verbal confirmation from the person on the other side of the door.

Although he was not expecting additional guests, he opened the door a bit and propped his foot against it to provide leverage. After he opened the door, a second individual appeared, who along with the silhouetted character, attempted to push the door open. The plaintiff tried to push the door closed but failed and then retrieved his shotgun. He shot at the intruders, who in return shot the plaintiff four times. The intruders fled and were never apprehended by law enforcement.

Following the shooting, the plaintiff vacated his apartment and did not pay rent.

Beyond the incidents involving this plaintiff, the apartment complex had been the scene of a number of criminal incidents over the years. Although the management company had on-site security at various times, on-site personnel requested, prior to the home invasion, that the management company provide additional security. The company declined the request. The former tenant sued the management company, alleging, inter alia, a claim of negligent security.

With respect to the negligent security claim, the plaintiff alleged that the management company negligently failed to:  (1) keep the premises in appropriate repair; (2) provide suitable security; and (3) keep the premises safe.

After the initiation of the lawsuit, the management company denied liability and asserted a counterclaim against the plaintiff for unpaid rent. Following discovery, the management company moved for summary judgment on all of the claims, which the trial court granted.

The Georgia Court of Appeals, in a divided opinion, affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. In conformity with the common law, Georgia law requires four elements be proven to establish negligence:  “(1) [a] legal duty to conform to a standard of conduct . . . ; (2) a breach of this standard [of conduct]; (3) a legally attributable causal connection between the conduct and [a] resulting injury; and (4)  . . . damage[s] . . . result[ing] [from] the  . . . breach of . . . duty.” Med. Center Hosp. Auth. v. Cavender, 331 Ga. App. 469, 472 (2015). The majority opinion found that summary judgment was proper because the plaintiff failed to propound evidence sufficient to establish causation. Specifically, the majority noted that a number of security measures that had been instituted at the apartment complex as part of a seven-million-dollar renovation. These measures included security alarms in each unit, exterior security cameras, security guards who worked at varying hours of the day, a 24-hour number for maintenance and security issues, the installation of an entry gate, and additional measures involving residents and local law enforcement. In addition, the management company noted that the plaintiff had not submitted any expert evidence or other testimony in the record that would demonstrate that any additional security measures would have prevented the shooting that occurred when the plaintiff voluntarily opened his door to a stranger past midnight.

In an effort to stave off summary judgment, the plaintiff pointed to testimony and correspondence from the management company’s community manager and the owner of the security company engaged by the management company to provide security at the apartment complex. However, the majority found reliance on this evidence to be misplaced, for neither of these parties’ comments specifically recommended or demanded additional security to counteract a general epidemic of crime, and, more importantly, the evidence failed to demonstrate how the implementation of any particular additional security measures would have affected the general crime rate at the property or the rate of the specific type of crime committed against the plaintiff.  See, e.g., Johns v. Housing Authority for the City of Douglas, 297 Ga. App. 869, 869-71 (2009) (holding that summary judgment should be granted on negligent security claims brought by tenant who was raped in her apartment because (1) there was an absence of evidence showing that particular security measures would have prevented the assailant’s entry, and (2) the plaintiff had equal knowledge of the alleged unsafe condition, a crack between her air conditioning unit and her window, through which the assailant made his entry).

The majority found that the plaintiff failed to establish sufficient evidence to prove proximate cause, and thus the trial court properly granted the motion for summary judgment. As noted above, however, this was not a unanimous decision. Indeed, several judges dissented from part or all of the court’s ruling.

The dissenting opinions noted that crime was far from uncommon at the apartment complex, and, despite the rampant crime, the management failed to employ security officers during overnight hours. In addition, the dissenters further explained that evidence showed that the management company failed to tell residents that the security officers were only employed to provide security for property in units being refurbished, rather than general security, and failed to fix holes in the fencing near the complex, even though the areas surrounding the property had problems with crime. On a final note, the dissenting judges also found that the repair made to the plaintiff’s apartment door made it more difficult to secure and that the majority’s reliance on the fact that the plaintiff opened his door was misplaced, since a jury could reasonably find that the plaintiff did not appreciate any specific risk of a home invasion when he inquired who was at this door. In light of this evidence, the dissenting judges reasoned that there was sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that the management company breached its duty of ordinary care. As this case aptly shows, negligent security claims are incredibly fact-intensive and open to varying interpretations.

If you have been shot or wounded at an apartment complex or commercial property, it does not hurt to consult with an attorney experienced in the finer points of Georgia negligence law and trial practice. The Atlanta apartment assault attorneys at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law have ample experience representing injured Georgia residents, and they are ready to provide counsel to those with potential claims. Indeed, if you’ve recently been harmed as a result of possible negligence on the part of your building’s management and are curious about your legal options, feel free to contact us and schedule a complimentary case evaluation.